Leah McLaren recently wrote an interesting article, titled “Logging out of the blogosphere” where she describes the reasoning behind her decision to stop reading blogs. I must admit I find myself agreeing with her in many respects. Even correcting for the volumes of garbage from spam and search engine placement games, the signal to noise ratio — the ratio of useful, accurate, or meaningful content to incoherent, unoriginal and redundant content is disturbingly low. This is a problem with ideas that get picked up en masse on the net. Universal accessibility implies average results. For this a favourite phrase comes to mind: It’s almost like half the people have below average intelligence.
This is deja vu for those of us who have been online for long enough to remember Usenet newsgroups. In “the early days” (roughly defined as before AOL discovered the Internet), Usenet was a vibrant forum for the discussion of thousands of topics. It had, for example, writer’s forums where published writers were comfortable in discussing their craft. It was not long after Internet access became widely available to the general public that the newsgroups descended into septic tanks of spam, flame wars, and the endless promotion of poorly reasoned and ill informed opinions. Those who didn’t abandon online discussion altogether retreated into private mailing lists, to the detriment of all.

But it’s not merely the calibre of the content that spurred McLaren to abandon blogs. It’s the results of searching technorati.com for references to her and other writers she likes. Apparently, there’s a lot of bitter, unpublished writers out there with terrible spelling, poor sentence structure, and displaced hatred. Worse yet, some of it is directed at her.

She further dismisses these voices by asserting that “when a blog is readable, the blogger tends to be either… a professional commentator… or a talented up-and-comer.” And that in the later case, the talented individual is “lured into the establishment” as a professional writer. Her conclusion is that the “underground media revolution is officially over.” It’s kind of odd to see a member of the “establishment media” dismiss “underground media” as though it was some kind of fashion trend. She seems to say “That’s it, we’ve found the bloggers who have the ability to write a coherent sentence, we’ve assimilated them by giving them huge book deals, and blogging is as out as wearing last year’s Pradas. Thank goodness this whole underground thing has passed and left us back in control.”

That’s a pretty difficult thesis to swallow, and McLaren herself goes on to offer up cases that contradict it. As a result I’m not sure what her point is. The weak reasoning in this aspect of her article just makes her sound like she’s reassuring herself against her own insecurities. It’s a section of this piece that could benefit from some skillful editing.

I wonder if this post counts as displaced hatred or not.

Next she returns to some points that I agree with, namely that the typical calibre of writing out there is low, and in a lot of cases even well-written blogs don’t have much to say. So far, there’s no blog search engine that ranks results for compelling, well-reasoned, or even coherent content. One addition to clear out the lower levels of muck would be to add a negative bias for bad spelling, but distinguishing between an unknown name and a spelling error would be difficult without grammatical analysis, and that’s a non-trivial problem to deal with.

Any contention that these problems will somehow spell the end of the medium are silly. Instead, someone will find a way to rank content based on networks of trust. We see an early version of something similar to this idea with LinkedIn.com, which is supposed to be a network of relationships between people where there’s a high degree of trust. In practice, it’s a network where there’s a low level of mistrust, but it’s a start.

Let’s say that a search engine solicited feedback from people about how valuable a page in a search result was. If that engine could start to build “communities of trust,” then it could give results like Amazon gives book recommendations “other people who trusted sites you trust also trusted these sites…” Possibly something like this would make it possible for the good content to work its way to the top, without teams of editors with their own biases doing the job.

Now I’m not about to say that some tool like this would destroy the media establishment. One of the drawbacks of such a system is that it might increasingly return only the results that someone would expect to see, so for example there might be a network of people who believe that there’s aliens from other planets in our midst, and they might build a community of people who believe in this idea absolutely, because they all thrust each other so much. This group would become increasingly disconnected from actual reality without some sort of reality check. This happens now: think Fox News, except on a smaller scale and online. It’s the job of credible mainstream media to put forth a balanced view, but as the Fox example illustrates, corporate concentration and corporate agendas can pose a significant risk to their ability to do this.

So this is the real value of a strong non-mainstream media. Whether you call it blogging, community journalism, or underground media, a strong, literate, and self-edited body of people who comment on what they see and what it means to them, be they professional, volunteer or anything in between, is an essential element of the pursuit of knowledge and reliable information. We just need a better way to filter out the good stuff from the noise.

I hope Ms. McLaren comes back to the blogosphere at some point, and that she finds a way to find the gems out here, and that she uses her establishment credentials to tell others about them. Maybe she could do that in her blog.